The World From Berlin Is Germany Turning Women into "Breeding Machines"?

Germany is debating how to boost its birth rate, and a proposal to expand public daycare by Ursula von der Leyen -- the conservative family affairs minister who is herself a mother of seven -- has enraged a bishop. The center-left Social Democrats are also nervous.

Germany hosts the World Cup only every few decades, so the minor baby boom  resulting from last summer's soccer tournament will remain a one-off. The country's birth rate is still below the European Union average, and the question of how to boost it has fanned an old debate about how much the state can and should do to encourage women to become mothers.

Conservative Family Affairs Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a mother of seven, has drafted a plan to sharply increase the number of daycare spots for children aged three and under. But the proposal has met with fierce criticism from the Catholic bishop of Augsburg, Walter Mixa, who said the move would hurt children and reduce women to the status of "breeding machines."

The issue is a battleground between the conservatives and center-left Social Democrats in Chancellor Angela Merkel's grand coalition. The Social Democrats, trailing in opinion polls, worry that Merkel's conservatives are outflanking them on the left with a recent push to help working mothers. Leyen herself spearheaded the introduction of new parental benefits  this January -- cash payments to women who take time off work to have a child -- and newspapers see the debate as a potentially decisive shift in Germany's political sands.

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"There's a race going on in the grand coalition: Mirror, mirror on the wall, which is the child-friendliest party of them all? The SPD made a big mistake when it left the 'soft' Federal Ministry for Family Affairs to its coalition partner, which is now reaching deep into voter groups that had long appeared to belong to the SPD.

"The excessive criticism of Bishop Mixa can only help the CDU … Not even von der Leyen's opponents want to agree with what he said."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Family policy has moved from the periphery back into the center of political debate. SPD parliamentary group leader Peter Struck, by demonstratively claiming his party's leadership on this issue, has shown how nervous the party is. Or rather: How nervous Ursula von der Leyen is making it."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Now that church leaders have taken up their positions in the row over family policy, the debate about increasing child care facilities is threatening to become an issue of faith. It shouldn't, because the facts are far ahead of the arguments. What families (let alone single-parent families) living in one of Germany's conurbations can still survive on a single income?

"This is not about faith but about finding pragmatic solutions to the everyday problems of many parents."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"This could become a protracted conflict that lasts until the next general election. The conservatives are setting the agenda right now. In Ursula von der Leyen they have a successful minister who is prepared to defy bishops. The mother of seven is a living example of how child and career can be combined. Von der Leyen is dusting off the conservative image of the family. The conservatives need such role models to become electable for young women in big cities. The SPD has recognized this as a danger, but there is little it can do."

-- David Crossland, 3:30 CET

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